Bike lights and the Goldilocks principle

Cyclists know that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Look at any of the How To Write Crap Copy About Cyclists articles or Cycling Bingo Cards and you’ll know that a key feature of criticising cyclists is that you don’t have to be consistent. In fact contradicting yourself seems to be de rigueur for anti-cyclists.

Cyclists must wear helmets, hi-viz and lycra. Cyclists look stupid in their silly hats, bright clothing and leggings. Cyclists go too slow you can’t get past them. Cyclists go too fast, they’re dangerous. And you can’t pass them without breaking the speed limit, dang cyclists. Cyclists should go on the pavement so I can drive on the road. Cyclists should go on the road so I can walk on the pavement. Cyclists should ring their bells. Who do cyclists think they are, ringing their damn bells and telling me to get out of their way. I saw a ninja cyclist with no lights, wearing dark clothing. How am I supposed to see him? Cyclists’ lights are too bright.

Actually that last one causes me a bit of a problem. There is a trend now amongst cyclists to have lights that are bright enough to cycle fast on unlit roads. These are not lights for you to be seen by, they are lights for you to avoid potholes at 30mph. I cycle on unlit, off-road paths at night. I have a light that enables people to see me and gives off a bit of light to see by. Add in light pollution and, depending a bit on the phase of the moon, I can comfortably go at 15mph on paths that I know. Comfortably that is until someone coming in the opposite direction sears my retinas with 3000 lumens. I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only person in Exeter with any degree of night vision and if so, for how long I’ll be able to retain it.

Now on the one hand, I’m all for cycling, people on bikes and anything they do to make the environment safer for them. I know we need  bright lights so that when some caveman dimwit bleats ‘I didn’t see you’ it’s quite clear to the insurance company that Troglodyte Boy wasn’t effing looking. On the other hand, I don’t want to be blinded by fellow cyclists travelling in the opposite direction and as pretty as the canal can look, I don’t really want to see it from the inside as I take an unscheduled dip because I can’t fucking see.

I’ve tried various tactics. I’ve tried the moth-to-a-flame thing of cycling at the pretty, bright shiny thing. I’ve tried yelling ‘if that’s got a dip function, use it!’ At the moment my favoured approach is the safest and most appropriate. I stop and cover my eyes. It’s making my evening commute a tad long. Fortunately my morning commute happens at 6.30am and there aren’t many people around.

I’ve decided now that I like my bike lights how Goldilocks liked her porridge. I want the lights to be bright enough to be safe, but not so bright that they distress other commuters. So if you are a person who commutes by bike and you are using unlit paths, just bear in mind that 3000 lumens directly at someone’s eye level can actually be quite distressing. Yes, I know car headlights are brighter. They’re also lower and more diffuse. And also, not on national cycle route 2 in the pitch black. And if you periodically encounter a woman sat in the middle of a bike path with her hands over her eyes, it’s me and I’m not happy.


6 thoughts on “Bike lights and the Goldilocks principle

  1. At this time of year the shared use path I use is pitch black and can be slightly hazardous. I have a helmet mounted 3.8k lumen monstrosity (for this time of year) as well as a front mounted 1.2k light. Both are easy to dim/turn off and dip and I do as a mark of just being a nice cyclist when passing other cyclists. I usually ride along with them on their dimmest settings as it is enough to see by and when I go into the lit tunnels I turn the big one off.

    However, if you ride towards me, with your light blinding me or trying to cause an epileptic fit and don’t dim/dip your lights, I will hit you with 5k of light. I’ve had enough.

    1. I’ve actually told someone to overtake me because he was cycling just behind with his front light strobing. How he coped with it I don’t know, it made me feel seasick. Unfortunately his rear light was doing the same thing so I had to drop back quite a bit from him!

      There was quite a debate about this on Twitter. Much of the defence of ultra-powerful lights seemed to be ‘but car lights are worse’. This puzzles me. A. “but drivers are worse” is never much of a defence and B. I’m not sure it’s true. Car headlights are designed to point away from oncoming drivers, they’re also lower and diffuse.

      I appreciate the need for bright lights, I’d just like oncoming cyclists to do what you do Adam, and show a bit of consideration for others!

      1. Somewhere between the highest power new lights and the dim old ones, I recently purchased a 1200 lumens cree light with functions for dip (about 600 lumens) and, oh dear, strobe. For both light pattern and avoiding blinding I also have a diffuser (which in my view the light should not be sold without), and as you say alignment is crucial.

        Perhaps there are two situations only in which use of strobe might be defensible: full daylight, or heavy traffic at night in a particularly well lit town centre? I am not so clear about the second case.

        I use the light on 600 lumens dip mostly, but there is a situation in which full 1200 lumens power is advisable. In Somerset, as imagine in Devon, drivers use full beam and adjust to dipped around bends only when they see in the hedge of the bend the illumination cast by the headlights of an approaching vehicle. On such bends they should be on dipped anyway, but in practice they are not. Because of the light it casts into the hedge on a bend, my new 1200 lumens light is the first light I have found that protects me, as a cyclist, from being blinded by car headlamps.

        It has made a tremendous difference to whether cycling is possible and safe at night. I had previously adopted the technique of a-few-lumens and hoping for moonlight, and once covered distance from Bedford to Goring in this way, but potholes are not funny – nor is being blinded by an oncoming car on full-beam.

        On dip or full you get better pothole discrimination by mounting the light lower down, on the forks or from the brake pivot. This casts more helpful shadows. It is also at driver’s headlamp level, and not at driver’s eye-level, as per handlebar mounting. Further, you front wheel is permanently illuminated for side visibility.

  2. I use a 300 lumen light, angled down at the floor, and pointing to the left, at a height of 2-3 ft, but I still get shouted at by other cyclists along a dark cycle path. Any thoughts?

    1. Your problem could be the beam shape that the light is producing. Also flashing lights are a no no on cycle paths. Try parking your bike up and putting yourself in the shoes of an oncoming cyclist. You can always ‘tape’ the light to adjust the beam shape. 🙂

    2. Agree with Adam. Try setting the bike up so you can see it as an oncoming cyclist would.
      Otherwise it could be that the oncoming cyclists are just a bit randomly shouty, or so peed off at other cyclists that they’re getting quite reactive!
      I had a near miss yesterday. Couldn’t see properly because of oncoming cyclists on an unlit, off road bike path. I slowed right down but didn’t realise that behind them and on my side of the path was a jogger in dark clothes with no lights. Only just avoided him.
      I’m loath to say that joggers should also start lighting themselves up so the alternative is that I join the war to have the brightest light so that oncoming cyclists don’t have such a bad effect on me and so that I can see joggers and walkers earlier.

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